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Homage to Old Rottenhat

On the protean genius of Robert Wyatt

Side by Side: Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge. Faber and Faber, 224 pages.

His Greatest Misses (2020) by Robert Wyatt. Domino, 17 tracks.

Robert Wyatt, the English singer and drummer and composer, turned seventy-five this year. In his youth he was Apollo, now he is Neptune. Or if you prefer Christian to Olympian, he was a naughty, pretty choirboy (the blond fringe that looks as though he cut it, infrequently, himself; the incessant cigarettes!) who eventually morphed into near as dammit God the Father. Pictures from his twenties show him behind his drums “shirtless and exuberant,” in the words of Marcus O’Dair, his very good biographer. A bit of liner note on the first Matching Mole record claims: “If you ever attended one of the Soft Machine gigs during the early part of 1971, Robert Wyatt would have been the person you’d most likely be watching throughout the performance.” On YouTube, he may be seen slipping into a rubber mole facemask before starting to play. He strikes me as one of those people, who, without wanting particularly to be seen, was always hard not to look at.

He was a thrashy sort of drummer: not Keith Moon manic or thunderous Bonzo, but not one to underplay either. He couldn’t afford to really, being one corner of a noisy trio, the Soft Machine, unhinged and on the edge of unbalance as all trios are. The music jolts along like a three-sided wheel, with Wyatt clattering away, Kevin Ayers playing a prominent and unexpectedly reliable bass guitar, and Mike Ratledge the lead instrument, a fuzz organ that was so set up that it had to be played continuously if it wasn’t to produce feedback, and so continuously played it was. In one of the texts in Side By Side—the book of lyrics, poems, diary-notes, and drawings that Wyatt has just brought out with the artist Alfie Benge, his wife and muse of forty-six years, and also his manager and cover-illustrator and, increasingly, lyricist—he says, or perhaps sings: 

I can still remember
The last time we played on Top Gear
And though each little song
Was less than three minutes long
Mike squeezed a solo in somehow

They were all better players, and had distinct—and one would have thought, thoroughly incompatible—musical identites, but as in a few of those mid-Sixties British Beat combos, there was something of punk in the Soft Machine. (The recording is terrible, for a start. “Embarrassingly amateur,” Ayers called it.) Then it was always more theater and style and “happening” than music. The lightshow and visuals, by Mark Boyle’s “Sensual Laboratory,” were a big deal. “We play hour-long sets, developing a concert style,” Mike Ratledge explains in the original rather smug album liner-text. “The compositions are spaced with improvisations on drum and organ and punctuated with songs.” “Punctuated with songs,” eh? Well, thanks a bunch. Anyway, there they were: the cast-off clothes, the disreputable dark glasses, the long-fringed haircuts that were a guarantee of no-service. The whole thing—like punk—youthful, homemade, eccentric, taunting, innocent. In the case of the Soft Machine the more so, as they had no guitars (more on this later). Loud, conflictual, at moments unsubtle music made mostly by people sitting down! Look, no Rickenbackers! The drums were an essential part of that breathless, convulsive, frenetic sound; it’s as though they would feed back too if Wyatt ever stopped clouting them.

Wyatt was an early instance in pop of singing in English rather than mid-Atlantic.

It seems odd to me that a band with the endlessly mellifluous bass-baritone crooner Kevin Ayers should have had someone else do the singing (and Ayers wrote most of the songs as well). But Wyatt both held down the drums and sang. His voice—like nothing and no one else, incapable of disguise, anyone who’s heard it instantly knows it, but how to describe it?—not falsetto but high, fragile, reedy, cracking. A yearning, aching, keening sound. Not trained, and probably not much amplitude. In the German, “eine Kopfstimme,” a “head-voice,” not from the body. Moving in its weakness, not powerful. If a voice can be high and hoarse at the same time, then that. A sort of gruff treble. Often holding a note past its sell-by date. Perhaps the oft-noted underwater aura of Wyatt comes from that. Not just shipbuilding, but also breath-holding. Also, an unfeignedly English voice with its banal, corrupted English vowels. (“Oi loike yau mowstly lite ut noit.”) I would probably have said South London—“saaf Lunnon”—but connoisseurs say Kent. (The Soft Machine, like the almost excessively melodious Caravan and Matching Mole and National Health and the squishy and ethereal Hatfield and the North, are filed under “Canterbury scene.” It’s more a social and historical designation than a musical one. A score of players, including also the Hopper brothers and the Sinclair cousins and the Hastings brothers, were in and out of one another’s bands for a couple of decades in the ’70s and ’80s. Even so, one can offer a few qualities they had in common: wistful, melancholy, silly, original, fey.)

Wyatt was an early instance in pop of singing in English rather than mid-Atlantic—along with Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, David Bowie, and Elvis Costello (when they weren’t being mid-Atlantic). Like Ian Dury or Kevin Coyne or Peter Perrett, later. It remains a minority pursuit. For the most part, that “singing in English” came out of folk music, people singing with their fingers in their ears, but that wasn’t the case with Wyatt. Nor, for that matter, with Richard Sinclair, the bass guitarist and singer for Hatfield and the North and Caravan (his is the sumptuous bass voice on “In the Land of Grey and Pink” and “Golf Girl”) and later instrumental collaborator on some of Wyatt’s solo recordings. Much of what I think of as quintessentially or inimitably or irreducibly English—that strange amalgam—comes from those voices, those accents, that music. Sinclair’s “Fol de Rol” on one of the Hatfield records, the numerous songs involving cups of tea, the sumptuously apologetic “Didn’t Matter Anyway,” the dismay—such an English feeling, the overcoming of one’s reluctance to impose—of Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” (“Stop please, oh deary me./ What in heaven’s name?/ Oh blimey. Mercy me. Woe are we./ Oh dear. Oh stop it, stop it./ You’ve been so kind”), the comic puns, the eccentric grace, the innocent smut (“Instant Pussy” but also “Instant Kitten” and “Immediate Kitten” and “Immediate Curtain”).

Strangely too the links to the Continent, which underwrote them in the past, and seems to guarantee their continuing archival existence. Wyatt’s latest record company is based there (Domino, in Germany). Hatfield and Matching Mole had most of their admirers there. It was there that they were recorded for French or Belgian television, played festivals in the Low Countries, and also went on tours there most summers. Kevin Ayers gives astonishingly fluent interviews in French and Spanish; Wyatt sings the occasional song in Spanish and his French isn’t bad—or, to say it more authentically, not half bad. Then there’s the English comic tradition, the radio shows of the early Sixties, at the fag end of music hall, just before the advent of Monty Python: Flanders and Swann, the Goodies, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Kenneth Williams, Round the Horne. A fearlessness, something nobly wacky, that doesn’t mind expending itself in silliness. A bit of Falstaff, a bit of Benedick, a bit of Lear’s Fool. All that, to me, is, or maybe was, the better part of the English character.

“His Greatest Misses” album cover. | Domino Records

So there’s Wyatt, on the eponymous first Soft Machine record, singing “Why Am I So Short?,” a song the other two wrote for—if not against—him:

I’ve got a drumkit and some sticks
so when I’m drunk or in a fix
I find it easy to express myself
I hit the drums so hard I break all their heads
and then I end the day in one of my beds.

I’m nearly five foot seven tall,
I like to smoke and drink and ball,
I’ve got a yellow suit that’s made by Pam
and every day I like an egg and some tea
but best of all I like to talk about me.

All sung in that high, urgent, demotic, sincere voice. And then expressing himself.

Wyatt has said he preferred songs and liked to make music for people to dance to. But the Softs went the other way, the way of instrumental maunderings, of (hateful stuff!) jazz-rock or prog rock. It’s no surprise they split three ways. At the end of the epic U.S. tour of 1968 supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers sold his bass and quit to become a solo artist of sorts, a sun-worshiper and expat crooner of exquisite ditties and the other way around, an exquisite crooner of expat ditties, (“May I?” “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes,” “The Oyster and the Flying-Fish,” “Clarence in Wonderland”), self-exiled to the Mediterranean and the matelot aura of the 1920s. (One can imagine him consoling Zelda Fitzgerald.) A couple of albums later, Wyatt was thrown out. Of his own band. “Mike and I couldn’t stand Robert’s singing,” recalled Hugh Hopper, successor to Ayers on bass guitar. “By then we simply couldn’t stand him and he became very discouraged—he wouldn’t have dared present a piece of music because it would be a song, so he started doing other things.”’

Being conceptually pissed off “a bit” by 99.9 percent of guitarists is obviously not ideal for a rock or pop musician in the 1970s.

It sounds like the original “personal and musical differences.” The Soft Machine became Ratledge’s vehicle (and something of a psychodrama) and settled to virtuosic noodling. It’s a little like what happened with Pink Floyd at the same time: the founding genius (here Syd Barrett, there Ayers and Wyatt) was turfed out, and the refashioned band achieved, in the case of Floyd, world fame and fortune, in the case of the Soft Machine, at least a simpler, stabler—or more stably unstable—and rather dour personality.

Wyatt formed his own band. Not Soft Machine, but (French) Machine Molle, and not Machine Molle but Matching Mole. Typical waggishness. You’ve read it a million times. Originally with the keyboard player David Sinclair and the guitarist Phil Miller (who later became half of Hatfield) and the bass player Bill MacCormick. They made two albums together. Wyatt, one may read, extolled Miller’s virtues. “Phil is the only guitarist who doesn’t conceptually piss me off a bit,” he told Cream magazine in 1972. “I agree with him about how to play guitar and I really don’t with anyone else.” I think of a later Miller composition called “Underdub” (I’m not even sure if he plays on it)  and see a man seemingly tickling himself with both spidery hands (he wears his guitar up under his throat, and mouths the notes), a wonderfully subtle and unassertive player. Being conceptually pissed off “a bit” by 99.9 percent of guitarists is obviously not ideal for a rock or pop musician in the 1970s, but that’s Wyatt for you, and who’s to say he’s wrong.

His sense of music was always in one way broader, and in another more homemade, more confected, more original, without the repetitiveness and the rote drums and guitars. One of Matching Mole’s songs, “O Caroline” (supposedly to a Wyatt paramour, the later manager of the Clash, painter and socialite Caroline Coon) is among the best things Wyatt has ever done, both plain and soaring, as he so often is; another, “Signed Curtain,” beautifully typifies what O’Dair calls his “metamusical” stance, a song that consists of pessimistic running commentary on its invisible structures:

And this is the second verse
Second verse, second verse
It could be the last verse
Last verse—
It’s probably the last one

And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it’s the bridge
Or just another key change
Never mind
It doesn’t hurt
It only means that

I’ve lost faith in this song.

He didn’t lose faith in the band. But in October 1972, after two albums, he disbanded it anyway. “I found there’s two things I wasn’t being very good at,” Wyatt told O’Dair. “One was being in somebody else’s band, and the other was running my own band. I couldn’t work for anybody else, and I wasn’t comfortable with anybody else working for me.” This was exacerbated by an accident on June 1, 1973, when, drunk at a party, he fell from a fourth-floor window and broke his back. (Had he not been drunk, he might easily have died. Truly, Bacchus looks after his own.) As it was, he was paralyzed from the waist down. It marked the end of his life as what, with incredible cool and lack of self-pity, he termed “a drummer biped.” It was Wyatt’s good fortune that he had met Alfie Benge at this stage. She was his second salvation. They were married in July 1974, on the day when Rock Bottom, the first solo recording  from the new part of his life, came out. The latest sampler of his solo recordings from Domino is called His Greatest Misses; it’s not possible not to hear it as His Greatest Missus.

He found something he could do, did it, and then did something else.

All Wyatt’s subsequent studio match-ups were temporary, small-scale, experimental, unpredictable and contingent. He had awful stage fright and rarely played concerts anymore. (One exception was on September 8, 1974, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which was advertised by a lovely photograph of “Robert Wyatt & Friends,” a flying wedge of them, all in wheelchairs.) The constant identifier was himself as striker of eccentric percussion (instruments include “Delfina’s wineglass,” “James’ drum, Delfina’s tray and a small battery”—“battery,” I take it, being a pun on the French for drums, batterie); a wash of keyboards (often little more than toys); and the doleful, shining-through-tears vocals, sometimes credited as “voice,” sometimes also “mouth.” He would be joined by a supple bass player like Richard Sinclair, the occasional virtuoso keyboardist like Dave McCrae (Wyatt himself plays studiedly, even haltingly), the occasional kit drummer like Laurie Allan from Henry Cow, or Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. And then an exotic and wide-ranging set of featured instrumentalists, often from the areas of jazz or world music: the trumpeter Mongezi Feza, the bass clarinetist Gary Windo, the trombonist Annie Whitehead, the violist Fred Frith. Rarely a guitar.

Easily his best-known songs are the covers. Of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” of Clive Langer and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (written for Wyatt), of Nile Rodgers’s “At Last I am Free.” Even then, there are not enough of these to make a pattern or a shtick. Wyatt himself reckons to write a song a year. All of this makes for an output that is both quantitively and qualitatively fragile. (Perhaps the biggest difference between him and Eno, who in other ways is a comparable figure, a sort of recessive center, holding threads of friendship and imagination.) The music has an occasionally amateurish or aquarelle quality, the texts limp from pun to pun, the voice bossed and tossed by a resolute, often free-sounding bass and squalls of trumpet or other brass. He found something he could do, did it, and then did something else. Never that again.